He Proclaims Uhuru — Understanding Caliban as a Speaking Subject



He Proclaims Uhuru — Understanding Caliban as a Speaking Subject
He Proclaims Uhuru
Understanding Caliban as a Speaking Subject
Brenda McNary
English and Comparative Literary Studies, Occidental College, 2010
Abstract: Revising William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Aimé Césaire wrote A Tempest as a proclamation of resistance to European cultural dominance—a project to “de-mythify” Shakespeare’s canonical
text. In A Tempest, Caliban attempts to authorize his own freedom by speaking it, positioning speech as
a tool to empower the colonized. By placing Caliban, the speaking slave, in the pages of a new play
with a specific historical trajectory, Césaire’s message of colonial empowerment forces a second critique
of Shakespeare while also inhabiting a space of its own. To connect speech with power, Césaire’s text
focuses on the role of dialogue within the colonial system, emphasizing its unique ability to move between the disparate subjective spaces of the colonizer and the colonized. Infusing speech theory with
politics, Césaire points out the dual possibilities of negotiation between the colonizer and colonized in
his play; speech functions both to disrupt and reaffirm the identities of his players in the colonial system.
By presenting colonial power structures as contestable, negotiable, and provisional, A Tempest exists
outside the boundaries of a simple revision, as it engages with The Tempest to reveal the potential for
language to act.
Keywords: Aimé Césaire, William Shakespeare, Caliban, A Tempest, colonization, hybridity, performative utterance, interstitial, dialogic
He Proclaims Uhuru
Understanding Caliban as a Speaking Subject
Brenda McNary
When the work was done, I realized there was not much Shakespeare left.
–Aimé Césaire1
The Martinican poet and theorist Aimé Césaire originally intended to translate William
Shakespeare’s play The Tempest from its original English into French, but in the end, his project extended far beyond a mere translation. Césaire’s revision, Une Tempête,2 diverges from
Shakespeare’s original play in a number of important ways—all of which suggest his political
stance against colonization in the recognition of its terrifying power to marginalize and dehumanize. By locating the action of the play specifically in a colonial context and focusing almost
entirely on the master/slave relationship between Prospero and Caliban, Césaire openly identifies the colonial themes that were merely suggested in Shakespeare’s original text. An activist
himself, Césaire was a main progenitor of the négritude movement, an early organized gesture
of black resistance to European cultural dominance. Given the political fervor of its author,
Une Tempête has become an object of critical scrutiny by both Shakespearean and postcolonial
scholars attempting to discern to what extent Césaire’s revision is a radical departure from
Shakespeare’s original Tempest and what Césaire’s work would mean on its own terms. Navigating a hybrid space between the political and performative, Une Tempête becomes necessarily
a diverse and discordant conversation between Shakespeare and Césaire: the canonical text
and its postcolonial revision.
Although older criticisms of Césaire’s A Tempest often simply compare his revision to
Shakespeare’s original text in an effort to understand its value as either a commentary upon or
update of it, Timothy Scheie represents a new mode of critique that resists a simple analysis of
the referential relationship between Shakespeare and Césaire to understand the meaning of
Césaire’s text on its own. In this way, Scheie moves beyond questioning the legitimacy of
Césaire’s project, instead focusing on the ability of Césaire’s text to represent colonial systems.
Scheie argues that despite Césaire’s project to critique racist colonial power structures, his
Aimé Césaire quoted in Pier Frassinelli, “Shakespeare and Transculturation: Aimé Césaire’s A Tempest,” Native
Shakespeares, Indigenous Appropriations on a Global Stage, ed. Craig Dionne and Parmita Kapadia (Hampshire:
Ashgate, 2008) 31.
Richard Miller’s 2002 translation of Césaire’s Une Tempête into English, A Tempest, is used throughout this article.
http://scholar.oxy.edu/ctsj 2 of 26 Brenda McNary
play appears to reinforce their hegemonic power, as he seems to reconstruct them in his text.
Offering an example of the problematic depictions of race in the text, Scheie points out
Césaire’s use of masks in the play to identify characters. He argues that the masks function to
undermine the potential for Césaire’s play to create “real” power shifts in colonial systems.
Masks are specifically addressed in A Tempest’s prologue, which Scheie cites as the initial moment of Césaire’s inappropriate treatment of race throughout the play. Césaire’s original staging of the play called for an all-black cast, and in the Prologue, a Master of Ceremonies
directs the actors to choose which character they will perform during the play by selecting a
mask from a box at random:3
Come gentlemen, help yourselves. To each his character and to each character
his mask. You, Prospero? Why not? His is an unfathomable will to power. You,
Caliban? Well, well, that’s revealing. You, Ariel! I have no objections. And what
about Stephano? And Trinculo? No takers? Ah, just in time! It takes all sorts to
make a world.4
Scheie reads the arbitrary distribution of racial identities in the play as evidence of
Césaire’s project to expose race as a social construct rather than as a biological absolute. However, Scheie argues that Césaire’s deconstruction goes too far. Since the play was written for an
all-black cast, his updated Prospero must be played by a black actor in a white mask—a shift
that Scheie argues undercuts the authenticity of “true” racial hierarchies. The play, Scheie
writes, “…discredits racial categories without furnishing a visible ‘doer behind the deed’ a
‘true’ race under the mask of race, a performer whose identity is not implicated in the performance itself.”5 To the extent that the play becomes too decontextualized and decentered to
depict racial power dynamics as they exist in the real world outside of the performance, Scheie
argues that the play loses its credibility as a legitimate critique on racialized power constructions. Existing in a vacuum in which the given racial identities of the characters do not match
up with the reality of the actors, Scheie emphasizes that the problem of Césaire’s play rests in
the performative. If racial identities here seem to be only a performance, can they be politically
Césaire includes the subtitle “Adaptation for a Black Theatre” in his original version.
Aimé Césaire, A Tempest: Based on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”: Adaptation for a Black Theatre, trans. Richard Miller
(New York: Tcg Translations, 2002) Prologue, pg 7; hereafter cited by page number.
Scheie, “Addicted to Race: Performativity, Agency and Césaire’s A Tempest,” French Cultural Studies
Criticism at the Crossroads, ed. Marie-Pierre Le Hire and Dana Strand (Albany: State University of New York Press,
2000) 215.
5 Timothy
http://scholar.oxy.edu/ctsj 3 of 26 Brenda McNary
Apparently not: Scheie locates the failure of the play in Césaire’s refusal to present
tangible racial constructs and describes a theater experience that would even draw audiences
away from a productive critique of race and power: “the spectators might wish to escape the
categories of race that have caused so much strife and suffering, but they need racial identities
in order to make the world intelligible.”6 By applying these close readings of the inauthentic
nature of race in Césaire’s play to Judith Butler’s theories of identity and performance, Scheie
crafts a provocative articulation of the play’s political limits, where the identities it attempts to
challenge already appear arbitrary, ambiguous, and negotiable, but must still be constantly reasserted. The play is thus, “…condemned to iterate them [racial categories] into exhaustion
even when their instability has been revealed and their truthful status questioned.” 7 However,
Scheie does not ask whether these performative reiterations of racial categories (constructed
as they are) can make new dynamics possible.
Scheie fails to acknowledge that Césaire consciously refused to operate within authentic racial categories in his play—a choice that opens up new possibilities to contest the validity
of these categories even as they are performed. Scheie acknowledges that new, hybrid racial
identities are being created and negotiated on Césaire’s stage but only views this as a problem.
He argues that Césaire’s revision loses its poignancy because it “offers no cure” for unequal
race relations in the colonial context it maps out, leaving audiences instead “stuck on categories of race” that can never be fully authenticated by the masks.8 Citing Butler’s Gender Trouble
as a supporting text in his critique, Scheie incorporates her theory of the performative in this
play of masks.9 Specifically, Scheie uses her discussion on the need for marginalized peoples
to perform identities that provide them with more agency—agency in the sense that the repetitive performance of these identities “troubles” the existing identity categories and can create shifts in power. Using Butler’s theory, Scheie interprets the distribution of masks by the
Master of Ceremonies as evidence that Césaire’s play does not achieve the same shifting effect
that Butler describes because of its unreality. Instead, Scheie argues, Césaire seems to be reinscribing preconceived racialized power structures by reiterating their inappropriate inscription on subjects. As the black/white Prospero performs his borrowed identity of racial dominance, Scheie points out the problem of its theatricality. Since racial boundaries are only being challenged on the stage, the performance loses its potential to translate into the real world.
Scheie 215.
Scheie 215.
Scheie 216.
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 1999).
http://scholar.oxy.edu/ctsj 4 of 26 Brenda McNary
Although the question of performance presents a serious critique of Césaire’s potential
to present a “real” racial performance, I argue that it is exactly Césaire’s reluctance to provide
an answer to the question of race and power in A Tempest that allows alternatives outside of
the dominant discourse to be explored on the stage. Racial identities are made even more provisional as the play forces audiences to consider racial constructions as they are actively created on stage. If we view Césaire’s play as a representation of the provisional nature of racial
identities in a colonial context and as a suggestion of the inappropriate power ascribed to race,
problems emerge in Scheie’s interpretation of the text, both critically and theoretically, as his
scope becomes too limited to discern the importance that negotiation plays in identity formation.
Certainly Caliban and Prospero lose their genuine claim to racial identities in the play
of masks as Scheie points out; however, this fact does not hinder their ambition to power in
the racialized colonial system Césaire presents. Locked in conflict with each other over the
course of the play, Caliban and Prospero reveal to audiences that the negotiation of identity
and power must be not only performative, but dialogical. Although Scheie focuses on the
problems of performed identities within the structure of a theatrical play, he ignores the potential for the play to access the association between speech and power through its necessarily
dialogical format. Much of Césaire’s play takes the form of a continuing argument between
Prospero and Caliban, allowing audiences to re-envision colonial power structures without an
explicit connection to race, where identities and power must be solely enacted through articulation. In spite of Prospero’s assumption of “superior” power and knowledge as a colonizer/
master, Caliban attempts to authorize his own freedom in A Tempest by speaking out against
him, suggesting the power of speech as a tool for colonized people to challenge systems of oppression.
The connection between language and power has been made elsewhere by postcolonial critics and linguistic theorists,10 but Césaire’s play offers new insight into the power of
performative utterances through its specific example of Caliban: a slave who speaks. In updating Shakespeare’s classic text to focus on the ambiguous relationship Caliban has to power
and identity through the use of speech, Césaire’s play problematizes the boundaries between
binaries such as self/other and oppressor/oppressed. By isolating Caliban’s capacity for speech
as a tool for negotiating his identity, Césaire suggests the potential for resistance to oppressive
power structures through dialogue. Portraying Caliban as a radical, speaking “other,” Césaire
See for example, Homi K. Bhabha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.
http://scholar.oxy.edu/ctsj 5 of 26 Brenda McNary
challenges colonial power structures and provides a provisional model for the marginalized to
gain power by speaking.
Shakespeare’s Speaking Slave
Césaire’s emphasis on Caliban’s arguments with Prospero does not present a particularly radical revision, since Shakespeare’s original text already established Caliban as a speaking slave. Writing in the earliest moments of colonization, evidence abounds that Shakespeare
was heavily influenced by the writings of early European explorers who kept journals and sent
letters detailing their encounters with new places and peoples. Significantly, these narratives
tend to place a specific importance on the ability of native peoples to speak as a marker of
humanity. Steven Greenblatt’s essay Learning to Curse locates the paradoxical connection between humanity and language for native people. On the one hand, learning the language of
the colonizer was one mode of gaining agency and a sense of humanity. On the other hand,
speaking in general did not achieve the same effect: native languages unknown to colonizers
relegated native people to a subhuman social status, as these utterances were viewed as illegitimate speech.11 Using Shakespeare’s terms, native languages were the “gabbling of a thing
most brutish.”12
To place the question of speech and power in a historical context, Greenblatt points to
the experience of Robert Fabian of the Court of King Henry the VII, who described the ambiguous moment when a group of North American natives wearing the appropriate English
clothing in court were still marked as “other” for their inability to speak the English language.
He explains, “The real test of their conversion to civilization would be whether they had been
able to master a language that ‘men’ could understand.”13 Shakespeare echoes this connection
between the English language and humanity in his text through Caliban. Over the course of
the play, audiences encounter Caliban as an English speaker; his speeches are not only intelligible, but complex. Although Prospero and Miranda berate Caliban as a “monster,” offering
physical descriptions of his otherness (e.g., “mooncalf,” “freckled whelp”), audiences are urged
to a more nuanced view when he delivers moving speeches, “be not afeard, the isle is full of
noises…,” and articulates his hopes for a life outside the oppressive control of Prospero.14
Caliban’s poignant command of language not only gives a voice to his misery, but also encour11
Steven Greenblatt, Learning to Curse (New York: Routledge, 1990).
12 William
Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. Peter Holland (New York: Penguin, 1999) I. ii. 356-7; hereafter cited by line.
Greenblatt 18.
Shakespeare III. ii. 134.
http://scholar.oxy.edu/ctsj 6 of 26 Brenda McNary
ages audiences to grapple with this question of his humanity. Greenblatt argues that Shakespeare’s choice to make Caliban’s speech intelligible despite his apparent physical monstrosity
complicates his identity, opening up the space for “a mysterious measure of resemblance” between the monster and his master Prospero.15 Shakespeare plays with the limits of human/
inhuman in terms of language by framing Caliban’s discourse in English, and as Greenblatt
points out, this construction has the effect of forcing the gaze of audiences into a comparison
between the “monster” Caliban and his “human” counterparts—by extension, forcing the
viewer to confront the shrinking space between the colonizer and the colonized.
The “mysterious resemblance” between Caliban and Prospero that Greenblatt suggests
parallels Homi K. Bhabha’s work on the disruptive role of mimicry in colonial systems. Just as
Shakespeare navigates the collapsing space between colonizer and colonized through language when Caliban speaks Prospero’s English, Bhabha provides a theoretical lens to view the
identity shift that occurs during this event. He points out that the colonial ambition to initiate
the colonized into the language of the colonizer becomes “inappropriate” in the sense that it
creates colonial subjects who are “almost the same, but not quite” the colonizer. Thus, the two
identities begin to exist in tandem with one another, in a constant state of negotiation, where
differences between the colonizer and colonized must continue to be reasserted, even as they
are simultaneously broken down:16
…the excess or slippage produced by the ambivalence of mimicry (almost the
same, but not quite) does not merely “‘rupture” the discourse, but becomes transformed into an uncertainty which fixes the colonial subject as a “partial” presence. By “partial” I mean both “incomplete” and “virtual.” It is as if the very
emergence of the “colonial” is dependent for its representation upon some strategic limitation or prohibition within the authoritative discourse itself. The success of colonial appropriation depends on a proliferation of inappropriate objects that ensure its strategic failure, so that mimicry is at once resemblance and
Shakespeare illustrates Bhabha’s theory of mimicry by allowing Caliban the slave to
speak English. Forcing audiences to determine for themselves whether Caliban is a “monster”
or not, Shakespeare positions Caliban always in comparison to Prospero—creating a similar
Greenblatt 31.
Homi K. Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse,” October 28 (1984, Spring):
Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man,” 127.
http://scholar.oxy.edu/ctsj 7 of 26 Brenda McNary
binary to the one that Bhabha maps out between the colonizer and the colonized. Just as the
division between the colonizer and colonized blurs in Bhabha’s system, wherein the colonial
subject becomes a “partial” colonizer through mimicry, audiences are faced with a similar construction in scenes where Caliban speaks as clearly and eloquently in English as Prospero.
Language is the mode of Caliban’s “transformation” into a “partial” subject through mimicry, a
subject that is both “resemblance and menace.” As a lens for understanding Shakespeare’s
suggestion of identity politics in The Tempest, Bhabha’s assertion of the disruptive, “menacing,”
and “inappropriate” nature of mimicry postulates that unstable power dynamics in colonial
systems are symptomatic. When linguistic colonialism, or really colonialism in general, blurs
the boundaries between Prospero and Caliban (the colonizer and the colonized) by creating
colonial “mimic men,” the potential emerges, as Bhabha articulates, for these “mimic men” to
disrupt/transform the colonial system, gaining agency for themselves in their proximity to the
colonizer. “The menace of mimicry,” Bhabha writes, “is its double vision which in disclosing
the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority. And it is a double-vision that
is a result of what I’ve described as the partial representation/recognition of the colonial
object.”18 In this way, the object of mimicry, the colonial object, despite its authority as such,
goes under a disruptive transformation once the colonial subject begins to approximate it. I
will return to the concept of the disruptive transformation of mimicry later on; however, at this
point it becomes possible to visualize Caliban’s potential for power when Bhabha’s theory is
applied to the text. As Caliban comes closer to a perfect mimicry of his master Prospero, he
begins to undermine his authority.
Using the example of language, we can begin to understand Caliban’s mimicry of Prospero’s English as a gesture to remove the differences that separate them. Bhabha places this
possibility at the crux of the power in mimicry: it “…articulates those disturbances of cultural,
racial, and historical difference that menace the narcissistic demand of colonial authority.”19
Returning to the Shakespearean connection between language and humanity, mimicry becomes the mode through which Caliban can access humanity. As the differences between
Caliban and Prospero collapse and Caliban gains a closer proximity (although always not quite)
to humanity, it becomes possible to imagine this as a site of the attack on colonial authority
Bhabha suggests.
If language humanizes Caliban to audiences in Shakespeare’s Tempest—or at least reveals his proximity to humanity through linguistic mimicry—it is paradoxically language that
Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man,” 129.
Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man,” 129.
http://scholar.oxy.edu/ctsj 8 of 26 Brenda McNary
simultaneously works to enslave him within the colonial system of the play. It is important to
remember that Bhabha’s account of the potential for mimicry to disrupt colonial systems is
not a mode of complete resistance since it is predicated on the need for the colonizer’s
authority/identity to mimic. The colonized exists in proximity to the colonizer. In this sense,
Caliban must necessarily navigate the space between his prior identity and the identity of the
colonizers he mimics—a problem that renders him unable to fully claim either the “colonizer”
or “colonized” as his identity. Bhabha’s interpretation of colonization outlines how Caliban
becomes “not quite” the colonizer, existing as an ambiguous “other” to the colonizer. So what
then is he? The process of colonization has not only placed him in a proximal relationship to
the colonizer, but also to his own pre-colonial identity. As Caliban shows, the process of colonization itself complicates the colonized person’s connection to his/her prior cultural identification.
When Prospero and Miranda taught Caliban how to speak their language, they allowed
him to approximate them as a “mimic man.” However, Shakespeare suggests that this gesture
functioned mostly to inscribe him as a subject into their community and culture. Linguistically incorporated into a new community with his colonizers, Caliban faces the much theorized problem of colonial alienation, forcing him to simultaneously exist within two cultures.
Albert Memmi’s work in The Colonizer and Colonized explains the doubling that occurs when
the colonized person learns the language of the colonizer, suggesting the physical and psychological trauma of negotiating between two worlds at once.
The difference between native language and cultural language is not peculiar to
the colonized but colonial bilingualism cannot be compared to just any linguistic dualism. Possession of two languages is not merely a matter of having two
tools, but actually means participation in two psychical and cultural realms.20
Caliban’s education in English literally places him in two worlds,21 a position that necessarily complicates his prior identity and places him within the mimetic proximal relationship to the colonizer that Bhabha theorizes. As Caliban is taught not to “gabble like a thing
most brutish,” 22 he is also interpellated into a community with Prospero and Miranda, albeit a
community built upon control and dominance. Instead of engaging in a discourse with Caliban as equals, Miranda and Prospero exploit Caliban’s capacity for the English language to
Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized (New York: The Orion Press, 1965) 107.
Keep in mind that Césaire’s original text was written in French.
Shakespeare I. ii. 356-7.
http://scholar.oxy.edu/ctsj 9 of 26 Brenda McNary
further enslave him, using it to give orders, criticize, and threaten. However, despite this community of control, Caliban’s ability to speak English opens up new possibilities for communication between master and slave, and consequently forms the proximity to power that Césaire
updates in his revision. Recognizing that learning English has relegated him to slavery, Caliban defiantly responds to Prospero and Miranda, “You taught me language and my profit on’t/
is I know how to curse.”23 Although learning English certainly disempowers Caliban in this
colonial microcosm, his ability to use English to curse his colonizers locates his proximity to
power in mimicry, at least allowing Caliban the agency to subvert the dominance of Prospero
and Miranda through speech. In this moment of resistance, Caliban undermines his education
by using the language he learned against his teachers. In this way, he reaffirms his own position as an individual by critiquing those who oppress him, thus problematizing his inscription
as “slave” through his exhibition of agency (limited though it is). Shakespeare’s play locates
Caliban’s humanity and power at the point that he speaks perfect English, raising questions
about the creation of colonial power dynamics and revealing the ambiguous access to power
held by the speaking “other.”
Caliban Re-emerges
Recognizing the political implications of The Tempest as an allegory for colonialism,
Aimé Césaire wrote A Tempest as a specific part of his project to empower colonized peoples.
In a 1972 interview, Césaire explains the goal of his text:
I was trying to “de-mythify” the tale. To me Prospero is the complete totalitarian. I am always surprised when others consider him the wise man who “forgives.” What is most obvious, even in Shakespeare’s version, is the man’s absolute will to power. Prospero is the man of cold reason, the man of methodical
conquest … Caliban is the man who is still close to his beginnings, whose link
with the natural world has not yet been broken.24
Césaire’s vision of Caliban’s proximity to the “natural world,” when contrasted with
Prospero’s detached “cold reason” and “methodical conquest,” clearly reflects his outlook on
the colonial system and forms a consistent link with his larger anticolonial political views. A
Tempest was written in 1969, relatively late in Césaire’s long political/academic career. As a student in a French university, Césaire found a cohort of likeminded intellectuals from the
Shakespeare I. ii. 363-4.
Aimé Césaire quoted in S. Belhassen, “Aimé Césaire’s A Tempest,” Radical Perspectives in the Arts, ed. Lee Baxandall
(Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972) 176.
http://scholar.oxy.edu/ctsj 10 of 26
Brenda McNary
French colonies who were also interested in issues of race and culture. By 1935, this small
group had produced a journal, L’Etudiant noir, which included writings that offered a counterpoint to the dominant university discourse and was produced entirely by black students.25 The
growing black student movement sparked by this journal and others in the French universities
was first articulated by Césaire in 1935 as négritude, which he defined as a collective “resistance
to assimilation” in which black cultural practices could be re-asserted to combat European
cultural dominance.26 Although scholars today point out that négritude’s basic assumption of a
unified black culture may be too essentialist, the movement retains its cultural and historical
importance as a reclamation of blackness as an identity for black academic elites, as well as an
early attempt to initiate new possibilities for agency within the rapidly shifting power dynamics of decolonizing countries during the movement’s historical moment.
To represent and assert a new black culture/consciousness, négritude promoted the
creation of black literature. In addition to writing A Tempest and other plays, Césaire embodied
his own vision of a black cultural voice through his poetry, memoirs, and theoretical texts,
which all focus closely upon on the lived experience of blackness. However, this movement
was not simply a suggestion of, but rather was an aggressive assertion of, black cultural presence. For Césaire, négritude was always a deeply political movement, born from a “place of
struggle,” where the re-appropriation of the word nègre as a name for the movement was in
itself a resistant act:
That’s when we adopted the word nègre, as a term of defiance. It was a defiant
name. To some extent it was a reaction of enraged youth. Since there was some
shame about the word nègre, we chose the word nègre.27
Significantly, the site of resistance in négritude on its most basic level was located
within language—in the quotation above, Césaire explains the explicit act of reclaiming
“nègre” for political purposes. The négritude movement thus exists in the interplay of language and politics, and Césaire theorizes his movement entirely in terms of its imperative to
assert a new literature—one that could produce work that would prove that “…Africa was not
some sort of blank page in the history of humanity.” 28 On the surface, Césaire’s A Tempest approaches his goal to create a black literary canon and directly assert the presence of black litRobin D. G. Kelley, “A Poetics of Anticolonialism,” Discourse on Colonialism, ed. Aimé Césaire, trans. Joan Pinkham
(New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972) 12.
Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, trans. Joan Pinkham (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972) 88.
Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, 89.
Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, 92.
http://scholar.oxy.edu/ctsj 11 of 26
Brenda McNary
erary culture by simply writing a play as a black man. However, Césaire’s play moves beyond
even these surface possibilities, since its themes also further the political goals of the négritude movement. This play, as with all his works, seeks to expose the violence of colonial systems and how the tortures of colonization are enacted on black bodies and identities as well as
on white ones.
Perhaps Césaire’s most important contribution was to make explicit the horrific effects
of colonialism on both the physical body and metaphysical self of all participants in the colonial system. Césaire wrote extensively on the dehumanizing aspects of colonization in Discourse on Colonialism, in which he famously encapsulated the experience of colonization into
the equation: “colonization= thingification.” 29 Césaire’s approach to explaining the plight of
people living within the colonial system through the pragmatic format of an equation performs the rhetorical effect of expressing a profound sense of dehumanization both in its linguistic construction and in its meaning.30 Albert Memmi, agreed that the colonized person
“tends rapidly toward becoming an object,” explaining that the combination of physical and
psychological disempowerment in colonial systems has the effect of rendering people suddenly strange and inhuman.31 In this system, Césaire also points out the dual function of
colonization to dehumanize the colonizer as well as the colonized: “…the colonizer, who in order to ease his conscience gets into the habit of seeing the other man as an animal, accustoms
himself to treating him like an animal, and tends objectively to transform himself into an
animal.”32 Thus, colonialism performs a double violence paradoxically on the colonizer as well
as on the colonized, as Césaire offers that all power in colonial systems is corruptive.
This theoretical trajectory offers a key insight into Césaire’s project to reposition The
Tempest in a colonial context. In one interview, he discussed the political project of his play,
offering it as emblematic of the experience of colonized people around the world:
Demystified, the play [is] essentially about the master-slave relation, a relation
that is still alive and which, in my opinion, explains a good deal of contemporary history: in particular, colonial history, the history of the United States.
Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, 42-3.
Even semantically, the use of the equation format necessarily limits the possibility for multiple interpretations of
this statement. In other words, the equation also “thingifies” or flattens the complexities of the language Césaire
uses to construct “colonization.”
Memmi 210.
Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, 41.
http://scholar.oxy.edu/ctsj 12 of 26
Brenda McNary
Wherever there are multiracial societies, the same drama can be found, I
As a revision, Césaire’s text mostly infuses a new sense of urgency to Caliban’s position
as a slave by explicitly evoking colonization, and most importantly, adding many more dialogical interactions between the master and slave. Taking up Shakespeare’s suggestion that speech
is the site of Caliban’s potential power, Aimé Césaire’s A Tempest presents a Caliban who attempts to tear down Prospero’s dominance by speaking. Although the speech/agency connection was initiated in Shakespeare’s original text, Césaire’s own political moment and affiliations offer new insight into Caliban speaking, as the author himself believed in the power of
speech and literary projects to enact political change.
Powerful Utterances
If Césaire’s project as a whole is to assert language as an avenue toward liberation for
the colonized, A Tempest places his ideas within the specific context of a master and a slave:
Prospero and Caliban. Césaire identifies one potential for power in raising the question of native languages. Caliban’s first utterance in A Tempest to Prospero is “uhuru,” a Kiswahili word
roughly translatable to “freedom.” The word was used prominently in the nativist Kenyan Mau
Mau revolution of 1961. Not only does “uhuru” draw a connection to radical political movements in Africa, linking Caliban to the decolonization struggle in a specific sense, but the utterance also suggests that Caliban possesses knowledge beyond Prospero’s. This has the function of subverting Prospero’s claim to a master’s absolute knowledge and presents a challenge
to his control. In the text, “uhuru” disorients Prospero, and he complains, “mumbling in your
own native language again, I don’t like it,” a thinly veiled attempt to reassert himself as
master.34 Steve Almquist argues that uhuru in the text is evidence of Caliban’s “… ability to
conceptualize a world foreign to Prospero, a world not defined through Prospero’s authoritative lexicon….” 35 In this way, Caliban’s use of uhuru adheres to many of the theoretical concepts Césaire and his contemporaries identify for subverting colonial power dynamics through
Aimé Césaire quoted in Lucy Rix, “Maintaining the State of Emergence/y: Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête,” The
Tempest and Its Travels, ed. Peter Hulme and William Sherman (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2000) 237.
Césaire, A Tempest, 17.
Steve Almquist, “Not Quite the Gabbling of ‘A Thing Most Brutish’: Caliban’s Kiswahili in Aimé Césaire’s A
Tempest,” Callaloo 29.2 (2006): 604.
http://scholar.oxy.edu/ctsj 13 of 26
Brenda McNary
This moment illustrates the kind of cultural resistance through the use of native language that Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o also advocates. In Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language
in African Literature, Ngũgĩ points out the paradox that most literature produced in Africa by
Africans is written in European languages. Troubled by what seems an affront on authentic
African cultural forms, he questions to what extent the “fatalistic logic” of using English affords more agency to Africans:
The fact is that all of us who opted for European languages…accepted that fatalistic logic to a greater or lesser degree. We were guided by it and the only
question which preoccupied us was how best to make the borrowed tongues
carry the weight of our African experience…. 36
Despite the rich diversity of languages in Africa, African writers opt to use the language
of the colonizer, a choice that Ngũgĩ finds deeply problematic: African writers are in a constant
state of translation and must always try to adapt their “African experience” into fundamentally
inappropriate languages. He argues that the resulting hybrid literatures Africans produce in
foreign languages must be specifically termed “Afro-European” literature, because they cannot
possibly be considered “African” literature due to their implicit participation in the imperial
system by way of language.37 Ngũgĩ’s calls for African writers to embrace their native languages
to “communicate the message of revolutionary unity and hope.”38 Linking literature with
power, writing becomes an overtly political demonstration for Ngũgĩ: He explains that “writing
in African languages becomes a subversive or treasonable offence,” given the pervasiveness of
the colonial project to silence native languages.39 In view of Ngũgĩ’s edict, Césaire’s play appears revolutionary for its inclusion of a Kiswahili word specifically as a tool to resist the colonizer, especially a word that means “freedom.” Although Césaire wrote his play in a much earlier historical moment than Ngũgĩ wrote his call for the production of African language literature, clearly the two men placed a deep significance on the power of native language not only
as a symbol of cultural ownership but also as an act of resistance to colonial dominance.
Caliban’s potential for liberation by speaking his native language is limited given that
he still uses English as his primary language in Césaire’s text. Although Caliban acknowledges
a prior language/culture by shouting “uhuru,” his total liberation is compromised as he perNgũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (London: James Currey
Ltd., 1986) 7.
Ngũgĩ 27.
Ngũgĩ 27.
Ngũgĩ 30.
http://scholar.oxy.edu/ctsj 14 of 26
Brenda McNary
petuates his ties to the English language and his colonizing teachers. If Caliban only spoke his
native language in the text, he would be symbolically distinct from the culture of his colonizers, and thus, liberated in the sense that colonization failed to permeate his language. However,
this idyllic vision of the power of native languages is interrupted by Césaire, who acknowledges that Caliban must successfully communicate with Prospero or risk being ignored entirely.
Shakespeare directly addresses the problem of native language in his text, presenting it
not only as a marker of cultural inferiority, but also as an obstacle to communication. Miranda
dismisses Caliban’s native language as unintelligible “gabbling,” revealing her assumption that
English is the only language.40 Facing a reality of impetuous colonizers, marginalized people
(Césaire included) have adopted European languages—whether voluntarily or not—as a means
to open new channels of communication. Although the use of European languages places the
viability of native cultures at stake,41 Césaire points out the paradox that Caliban must speak
Prospero’s language in order to more completely destabilize his power. While Caliban’s use of
Kiswahili jars Prospero, his immediate reaction is to dismiss it. Caliban needs to be able to resist Prospero in English. At the crux of Césaire’s play, the impossible question emerges: How
can Caliban organize to overthrow the dominance of Prospero when he must do it in English,
a gesture that removes his original cultural identity in the oppressive system of colonization?
In this complex environment of language and power, I find that the connection between speech and power has not always been articulated in a colonial or even explicitly political context. Retreating for a moment from the discussion of language and power in Césaire’s
work and its implicit identity politics, the interstices of language and power can also be discussed in terms of semantics. J. L. Austin’s work on performative utterances shows that performative speech, or spoken words, can act—given that these utterances adhere to a specific
set of social conventions.42 Although not explicitly political, Austin’s work merits some consideration in the context of Césaire’s attempt to liberate Caliban through speech.
Austin defines a performative utterance as a speech act, where “the issuing of the utterance is the performing of an action—it is not normally thought of as just saying
something.”43 To illustrate the performative utterance more completely, Austin uses the example of wedding vows—saying the words “I do” brings a new state of affairs into existence, in
Shakespeare I. ii. 356.
See Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove, 1994).
J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1962).
Austin 6.
http://scholar.oxy.edu/ctsj 15 of 26
Brenda McNary
this case, a marriage. However, Austin complicates the issue by acknowledging that specific
conditions must be met for these performative utterances to achieve their intended action. For
words to be active, they must operate within the correct context. In the marriage example, if
the circumstances are inappropriate, a person saying “I do” cannot actually perform a marriage; the person would simply be saying, “I do.” The idea that performative utterances depend
upon social convention forms the crux of the political implications of Austin’s work. He points
out that it is “necessary that the circumstances in which the words are uttered should be in
some way, or ways, appropriate,” and goes on to argue that appropriateness is mostly based on
social convention.44 Weddings require legitimization to be recognized by the state, to say nothing of the additional requirements of adhering to religious/cultural traditions. The necessity
for performative utterances to operate within social “conventions” reveals their complicity with
dominant power structures.
Although Austin’s performative utterances create new possibilities for Césaire’s text to
“do something” to correct oppressive colonial power structures, the problem of legitimacy presents an unavoidable obstacle. For example, we can identify Caliban’s proclamation of “uhuru”
as a performative utterance using Austin’s criteria. As audiences are presented with Caliban’s
clear announcement of “freedom,” an utterance that has the potential to activate what it announces under the right circumstances, Caliban’s action is disrupted when Prospero cannot
understand the word. Since the power dynamic on the island mirrors colonial situations,
Prospero’s role as colonizer grants him the authority to determine which of Caliban’s utterances are fulfilled and which are not. In this instance, Caliban’s claim cannot achieve its action
because it goes against colonial convention for a slave to free himself by speaking. While Caliban can “speak,” his social status as a slave removes the potential for his words of resistance to
expressly perform their intended action, suggesting the close relationship between speech and
power and politicizing the action of Caliban’s speech within a colonial system. As Austin argues, performative utterances outside of convention are doomed to failure. However, Césaire’s
suggestion of Prospero’s discomfort with the word “uhuru” does point to one remaining possibility for Caliban’s power through speech. Although Caliban’s performative utterances are
not fully realized, perhaps even their iteration is enough to destabilize the colonial construct.
In this void between the utterance and its intended action, Judith Butler updates Austin to suggest how even inappropriate utterances can become active. Identifying the inherent
politics of the performative utterance, Butler emphasizes their ability to work within social
conventions to produce subjects for control. In Excitable Speech, Butler places Austin’s ideas in
Austin 8.
http://scholar.oxy.edu/ctsj 16 of 26
Brenda McNary
a more political context, arguing that the performance of “injurious speech acts” causes a loss
of context that disorients the receiver, allowing a temporary loss of control that places him/her
into a new social order.45 By synthesizing Austin’s productive performative utterance with Althusser’s theories of ideological interpellation, Butler points out that some speech acts move
beyond action in the restricted definition that Austin articulates. Instead, these words are active in the sense that they function to call a new subject into being. Specifically citing the phenomena of naming, she argues that as people are named, even incorrectly, they are initiated
into a particular social system. Naming implies a sense of identity, and although the new identity could function to place the named in an inferior social position, there is still the suggestion of agency where at least the named is assured of his/her social position. This fact allows
Butler to present a new possibility for agency:
The terms by which we are hailed are rarely the ones we choose…but these
terms we never really chose are the occasion for something we might still call
agency, the repetition of an originary subordination for another purpose, one
whose future is still partially open.46
When applied to Césaire’s text, Butler’s theories open the space for Caliban’s agency
through speech as his “future is still partially open.” Readers must acknowledge that the moment in which Prospero first names Caliban his slave is an inappropriate gesture: both texts
explain that Caliban had a legitimate claim to the island before Prospero arrived. By specifically christening Caliban as a “slave,” Césaire’s text illustrates Butler’s idea that naming works
as a performative utterance to “introduce a new reality rather than report on an existing
one.”47 Butler’s theory also traces Caliban’s shifting role after that initial moment of vulnerability. Referring to Althusser, she notes the power of language to interpolate the body into a
new social existence.48 Applying Butler’s theory to Césaire’s text, once the title “slave” is given
to Caliban, he has also been given the identity of “slave,” along with all of its social connotations on the island. Butler suggests that “slave” is not just a temporary condition. Caliban will
never be able to “unsay” the name he has been given by Prospero—thus permanently cementing his position as a “slave,” both socially and psychologically. However, Butler’s discussion of
the new sort of agency naming initiates makes it possible for Caliban to modify this given
Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of Performance (New York: Routledge, 1997) 26.
Butler, Excitable Speech, 38.
Butler, Excitable Speech, 33.
Butler, Excitable Speech, 26.
http://scholar.oxy.edu/ctsj 17 of 26
Brenda McNary
identity within existing social constructs by negating it. We can imagine that Caliban’s role as
“slave,” although not a name he chose for himself, gives him a contestable identity. Caliban exemplifies the hidden potential of naming; not only does it support the existing dominant
power structure by interpolating Caliban as a slave, but it simultaneously initiates a new power
dynamic as Caliban finds the agency to deny his new inappropriate name/identity.
Césaire explores the possibility for naming to empower in his text most specifically in
the scene in which Caliban directly challenges his name given by Prospero.
Caliban: It’s this: I’ve decided I don’t want to be called Caliban any longer.
Caliban: It’s the name given me by your hatred, and every time it’s spoken it’s
an insult.
Prospero: My aren’t we getting sensitive! All right, suggest something else… I’ve
got to call you something. What will it be? Cannibal would suit you, but I’m
sure you wouldn’t like that, would you? Let’s see… what about Hannibal? That
fits. And why not… they all seem like historical names.
Caliban: Call me X. That would be best. Like a man without a name. Or, to be
more precise, a man whose name has been stolen. You talk about history… well,
that’s history, and everyone knows it! Every time you summon me it reminds me
of a basic fact, the fact that you’ve stolen everything from me, even my identity!
Uhuru! (He exits.)
Prospero: (to Ariel) My dear Ariel, did you see how he looked at me, that glint in
his eye? That’s something new. Well, let me tell you, Caliban is the enemy.49
In an attempt to reassert agency over his own identity, Caliban asks Prospero to call
him “X” as a placeholder for “a man whose name has been stolen.” Prospero’s insidious assertion of power in pretending to reassign Caliban an equally offensive new name, as well as his
aside that Caliban needs a name, functions to establish his sense of ownership over Caliban’s
identity along the lines of colonial structures. Although the dialogue ultimately ends without a
clear resolution, the exchange still exemplifies Butler’s theory as Caliban reclaims agency over
his own identity by contesting it. Caliban’s latent power is palpable. Most important in this
scene, however, is the effect of Caliban’s words on Prospero. Césaire suggests that Prospero
was unsettled by the exchange after Caliban leaves, a reaction that opens up the space for
Césaire, A Tempest, 20.
http://scholar.oxy.edu/ctsj 18 of 26
Brenda McNary
Caliban’s resistance to colonization through dialogue. Paradoxically empowered by his inscription into the colonial system through language, Caliban in turn uses language to attempt
to reclaim his lost identity and challenge his oppressor. As Caliban realizes his potential power
through speech, the question emerges: what is at stake in marginalized peoples using speech
against their masters?
Colonial Applications
Caliban’s ability to speak allows his close proximity to power despite his status as a
slave. To further investigate the connection between speech and power in Césaire’s A Tempest, I
reconsider the play’s explicit colonial context and how the play mirrors and diverges from real
colonial situations. Gayatri Spivak anticipates Caliban’s ambiguous relationship with speech
by acknowledging the long historical relationship between marginalization and silence in colonial systems. Spivak points out that speaking is always an assertion of political power by
identifying how the subaltern, or marginalized person, is cowed into silence by the oppressive
discursive hierarchies of native elites and colonizers.50 The subaltern are rendered silent when
more powerful voices presume to speak for them. Spivak identifies the utter powerlessness of
the subaltern who cannot speak for and of themselves: “for the (gender unspecified) ‘true’ subaltern group, whose identity is its difference, there is no unrepresentable subaltern subject
that can know and speak itself….”51 Spivak points out that one of the greatest violences enacted upon the subaltern, who are locked in a constant reality of misrepresentation and silence by the colonial system, is their inability to represent themselves through speech.
Thus far, I have argued that speech is the primary source of Caliban’s limited agency in
both Césaire and Shakespeare’s texts. In this way, Caliban presents himself not as the fully
marginalized silent subaltern that Spivak discusses, but rather as a hybrid version of her subaltern: a slave who speaks despite his status. Initiated by Shakespeare and then fully explored
in Césaire’s revision, Caliban gains a sense of empowerment in his ability to speak out against
Prospero to articulate his own identity and represent himself. However, this empowerment
must always be limited by his position as a slave, rendering his ability to shift the power dynamic of colonization by speaking an ambiguous possibility. In a significant affirmation of Spivak’s subaltern silence theory, both plays end with no resolution to the problem of Caliban’s
slavery. At the end of both plays, Caliban’s freedom remains unresolved. Despite his discursive
Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and
Lawrence Grossberg (Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1988).
Spivak 285.
http://scholar.oxy.edu/ctsj 19 of 26
Brenda McNary
attempts to gain freedom (mostly by arguing with Prospero), audiences are only left with suggestions for his future; however, these can also be analyzed through the theoretical apparatuses of speech and subjectivity. Since Caliban may not be able to achieve total freedom, can
his speech acts achieve something else?
Caliban’s position in-between freedom and slavery surfaces most clearly in the ambiguous ending of each play. Not fully gained but not impossible, both Shakespeare and
Césaire leave the question of Caliban’s freedom unanswered. In Shakespeare’s original Tempest, Caliban is not even present on stage at the end of the play. He has been unceremoniously
ordered to clean Prospero’s house with fellow conspirators Trinculo and Stephano. By carrying out his final orders from Prospero without voicing a single complaint, Caliban eliminates
the possibility for his complete liberation. Indeed, Caliban’s last words to the audience are an
acknowledgement of his failure to enact his own freedom: “What a thrice-double ass/Was I to
take this drunkard for a God/And worship this dull fool.”52 Once he leaves the stage, audiences can only imagine Caliban’s future. Whatever bleak reality Caliban’s absence and silence
may signify in Shakespeare’s play, it must also be noted that he is evoked in Prospero’s tragic
musings during the epilogue. Admittedly, Caliban is not specifically mentioned in Prospero’s
final lines, but in his essay “Intertextuality in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Césaire’s Une
Tempête,” William Redmond points out the possibility that Caliban’s presence is implied in
Prospero’s last speech. 53 Prospero, alone on stage, speaks out to the audience, asking them to
pardon his “crimes” and allow him to leave the island and return to Italy with the others.
Alone on stage, Prospero makes his final address to the audience:
And my ending is despair/Unless I be relieved by prayer,/ Which pierces so that
it assaults/ Mercy itself and frees all faults./ As you from crimes would pardoned
be,/ Let your indulgence set me free.54
Redmond notes the specificity of the language in this section. Prospero’s discussion of
“crimes” and desire to be “free” again suggest his participation in an oppressive colonial system, even implying some acknowledgement and guilt for the injustices he has committed
Shakespeare V.i. 296-298.
Redmond, “Intertextuality in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Cesaire’s Une Tempête,” Foreign Accents:
Brazilian Readings of Shakespeare, ed. Aimara da Cunha Resende (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 2002) 174–197.
53 William
Shakespeare, Epilogue, lines 15-20.
http://scholar.oxy.edu/ctsj 20 of 26
Brenda McNary
against Caliban. In this way, Prospero’s speech functions to deconstruct his role as a colonizer
psychologically, prompting a new consideration of the effects of Caliban’s speech acts.55 Returning to the earlier discussion of Discourse on Colonialism, Césaire reveales not only how colonial systems dehumanize the colonized, but also how they “decivilize the colonizer,” operating to “awaken buried instincts” and promote a calloused acceptance of violence.56 If read in a
specifically colonial context, Shakespeare’s inclusion of Prospero’s remorseful speech at the
end of his play can be interpreted as an apologetic testimonial of the kind of dehumanization
that can occur to people in power in colonial systems. Although Shakespeare resists a specific
discussion of Caliban’s freedom at the end of the text, he opens up the potential for a shift in
the colonial power dynamic of the island in Prospero’s expression of remorse about his role as
the colonizer, thus weakening his absolute control over the island and creating a space for
Caliban to emerge from marginality. Although in Shakespeare’s epilogue Caliban does not
speak, Prospero’s apologetic speech relocates his previously unchallengeable dominance in
this colonial system elsewhere: perhaps in closer proximity to Caliban.
Césaire expresses a similar possibility for a new colonial power dynamic in his revision,
amplifying Prospero’s evocation of an absent Caliban to identify their alignment with theoretical constructions of the hybridity in colonial relationships. At the end of the fifth act, rather
than returning to Italy (as is implied in Shakespeare’s play), Prospero decides to remain on the
island with Caliban. In a complete break from Shakespeare, Césaire adds a new final scene in
which Prospero violently confronts Caliban for undermining his power: “Well I hate you as
well! For it is you who have made me doubt myself for the first time.”57 After an undisclosed
amount of time passes, the curtain rises again and Prospero reappears on the stage, significantly alone, and shouts: “Well, Caliban old fellow, it’s just us two now, here on this island…
only you and me. You-me…me-you!” 58 However, he receives no response from Caliban, who
remains offstage. Only Caliban’s disembodied voice can be heard in the distance shouting
“Freedom Hi-Day!” over the sound of ocean waves crashing to the shore, as prescribed in the
original stage directions.59 Césaire’s ending amplifies the shifting power dynamics: Césaire’s
reconstruction of Prospero’s final speech is not a plea but rather is a recognition of the dissolution of the boundary between his own identity and Caliban’s. This shift prompts a multitude
Redmond 179.
Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, 36.
Césaire, A Tempest, 63.
Césaire, A Tempest, 65.
Césaire, A Tempest, 66.
http://scholar.oxy.edu/ctsj 21 of 26
Brenda McNary
of connections to contemporary theories of the slippages created in colonial systems between
subjects, further deconstructing the power dynamics between colonizer and colonized.
This evidence of Prospero and Caliban’s relationship in flux at the conclusion aligns
Césaire’s play with Homi K. Bhabha’s suggestion of the dialogical and indeterminate nature of
colonial power constructs.60 Bhabha explains that in a colonial binary, both the colonizer and
colonized depend upon one another in order to establish their identities as separate.61 Bhabha
also introduces the “third space,” the complex and various interactions passing between the
colonizer and the colonized as they negotiate these differences.62 As a specific moment in
which this “third space” is activated, Bhabha notes the power of “interstitial moments” to reveal points of contact between binaries, specifically, the seemingly disparate roles of the colonizer and the colonized. Bhabha elaborates that the distinction between the colonizer and
colonized is entirely a product of negotiation:
… “difference” is not so much a reflection of pre-given ethnic or cultural traits
set in the tablets of a “fixed” tradition as it is a complex ongoing negotiation—against authorities, amongst minorities: the “right” to signify concerns.63
As an aged Prospero takes the stage, the moment when he begins to conflate his own
identity with Caliban’s can be interpreted as interstitial. In this moment, Prospero acknowledges the intimacy of his connection with Caliban (albeit from a position of difference): he
depends upon Caliban’s presence and “difference” to locate his power as colonizer. When
Caliban is absent, Prospero expresses his insecurity about being left alone on the island. He
begins to confuse his identity with Caliban’s—thus illustrating the codependence that Bhabha
positions as the foundation of colonial relationships. By revealing Prospero’s need to negotiate
his power in relation to Caliban, Césaire initiates the possibility of investigating the power dynamic between Prospero and Caliban on a new plane where Caliban’s oppression is not an
absolute reality, but one that is constructed through the articulation and negotiation of differences that separate him from Prospero. Because the colonial system depends upon negotiation
to survive, the presence of Caliban’s speech in both texts gains critical importance. Caliban’s
Almquist also makes the connection between Prospero’s speech and Bhabha’s idea of the dissolution of
boundaries between Prospero and Caliban; however, his discussion is limited to identifying evidence of Caliban’s
mimicry of Prospero.
Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994).
Homi K. Bhabha, “Frontlines/ Borderposts,” Displacements: Cultural Identities in Question, ed. Angelika Bammer
(Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1994).
Bhabha, The Location of Culture, 270.
http://scholar.oxy.edu/ctsj 22 of 26
Brenda McNary
ability to speak ensures that the foundations upon which the colonial relationships are built
can be challenged and renegotiated.
Explicitly connecting the negotiation of colonial identities with speech, Bhabha points
out that the conversation is necessarily about the “right to signify concerns.”64 Bhabha’s idea
maps out how subjects formulate their identities through negotiation with “others.” Applied to
Césaire’s text, Bhabha’s work presents a new interpretation of Caliban’s speech acts as a
means for him to redefine the power binary between himself and Prospero. In the actual text,
many of Caliban’s utterances on stage are dialogical, positioning him in an unending negotiation of his status in comparison with Prospero’s. By focusing on the conflict-ridden dialogical
negotiations between Prospero and Caliban, Césaire reveals the dual nature through which
language acts simultaneously to enforce and to equalize oppressive power structures in which
the powerful speak to defend their status even as the marginalized rise to challenge them.
Contested Dialogues
Shakespeare gave Caliban the unique position of a “speaking” slave, affording him the
tantalizing possibility of subverting his master Prospero’s power; however, it was not until
Césaire’s revision that the potential for speech could be fully explored in an explicitly colonial
context. The focus on speech and dialogue in Césaire’s A Tempest identifies the author’s theoretical perspective that speech is essential to the project of colonial empowerment, where
speech enables colonial subjects to assert their own identities as well as negotiate their position in relation to colonial power dynamics. By emphasizing Caliban’s speech in the original
Shakespeare, we can see that Césaire’s revision deserves critical attention for its exposure of
the power in Caliban’s speech acts: a concrete example of how speech can open up new possibilities of agency for marginalized peoples despite its many limitations and nuances.
The use of dialogue in Césaire’s text reveals that colonial power structures are in constant negotiation through performance and shows that the structures produced are always
necessarily provisional. I find that the ambiguous endings in both plays imply the potential for
a shift in Prospero’s power as Caliban speaks; however, the placement of these concepts within
a dialogical framework removes the possibility for finalized structures. Power shifts in conversation. Prospero and Caliban’s arguments work to reveal the fluid creation and contestation of
power and identity in Césaire’s colonial scenario.
The depiction of these structures being actively built up on stage requires audiences to
formulate their own interpretations of what is gained or lost. In this way, the two plays raise
Bhabha, The Location of Culture, 270.
http://scholar.oxy.edu/ctsj 23 of 26
Brenda McNary
more questions about the political possibilities for dialogue than they answer. Though theories
of the intersection of language and power suggest how dialogue can be useful to achieve
“freedom” or “agency,” what remains unsaid and unsayable is our definition of “freedom” in
the context of the play, what “freedom” would look like for Caliban, as well as the more direct
question of whether or not Caliban ever gains “freedom” by speaking.
In the extensive scholarship comparing Césaire’s revision to Shakespeare’s original,
recent critics have suggested that Césaire’s text itself could be interpreted as a dialogue with
Shakespeare’s original in the sense that it engages with the canonical western text to reveal
the inconsistencies within the colonial power structures it represents. Jose O’Shea and Pier
Frassinelli emphasize the need to compare A Tempest with The Tempest rather than treating it as
an independent play.65 They argue that these comparisons reveal A Tempest’s reflexive power to
problematize and identify key aspects of colonial power in the original text. In this way, the
two plays themselves become a dialogue across social and temporal boundaries to address essential questions of power, difference, and most importantly, the role of speech.
By updating Shakespeare’s original text to give a new voice to Caliban, Aimé Césaire
expresses a new political trajectory with A Tempest. In Césaire’s revision, Shakespeare’s suggestion of the connection between speech and power is contested, reproduced, and transformed
through the reinscription of Caliban as a radical speaking slave—ultimately producing a text
that positions speech as a tool to empower marginal peoples. By constructing a new Caliban
who challenges his position through speech, Césaire reveals the instability at the center of colonial power structures in his text: entities that must be constantly renegotiated and rearticulated in terms of difference. Thematic concerns aside, however, the text achieves a similarly
disruptive effect even in its creation. Important not only for instigating an attack on the colonial system through Caliban’s speech, A Tempest becomes a disruptive speech act itself, as
Césaire infuses his own voice into Shakespeare’s The Tempest to open a new space for black
voices to challenge oppressive colonial scripts.
Frassinelli; Jose O’Shea, “Uhuru!: Césaire’s and Shakespeare’s Uncontainable Calibans.” Foreign Accents: Brazilian
Readings of Shakespeare, ed. Aimara da Cunha Resende (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 2002).
http://scholar.oxy.edu/ctsj 24 of 26
Brenda McNary
Almquist, Steve. “Not Quite the Gabbling of ‘A Thing Most Brutish’: Caliban’s Kiswahili in
Aimé Césaire’s A Tempest.” Callaloo 29.2 (2006): 587–607. JSTOR.
Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Toward an
Investigation).” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York:
Monthly Review Press, 1971. 127–186. Print.
Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words. London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1962. Print.
Belhassen, S. “Aimé Césaire’s A Tempest.” Radical Perspectives in the Arts. Ed. Lee Baxandall.
Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972. 176–178. Print.
Bhabha, Homi K. “Frontlines/Borderposts.” Displacements: Cultural Identities in Question. Ed.
Angelika Bammer. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1994. 269–72. Print.
Bhabha, Homi K. “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse.” October 28
(1984, Spring): 125–133. JSTOR.
Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994. Print
Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. New York: Routledge, 1997. Print.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.
Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism. Trans. Joan Pinkham. New York: Monthly Review Press,
1972. Print.
Césaire, Aimé. A Tempest: Based on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” Adaptation for a Black Theatre.
Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Tcg Translations, 2002. Print.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove, 1994. Print.
Frassinelli, Pier. “Shakespeare and Transculturation: Aimé Césaire’s A Tempest.” Native
Shakespeares, Indigenous Appropriations on a Global Stage. Ed. Craig Dionne and Parmita
Kapadia. Hampshire, England: Ashgate Publishing, 2008. 173–186. Print.
Greenblatt, Stephen. “Learning to Curse: Aspects of Linguistic Colonialism in the Sixteenth
Century.” Learning to Curse. New York: Routledge, 1990. 16–39. Print.
Kelley, Robin D. G. “A Poetics of Anticolonialism.” Discourse on Colonialism. Ed. Aimé Césaire.
Trans. Joan Pinkham. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972. 7–28. Print.
Memmi, Albert. The Colonizer and the Colonized. New York: The Orion Press, 1965. Print.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature.
London: James Currey Ltd., 1986. Print.
Nixon, Rob. “Caribbean and African Appropriations of The Tempest.” Critical Inquiry 13.3
(1987): 557–578. JSTOR.
O’Shea, Jose Roberto. “Uhuru!: Césaire’s and Shakespeare’s Uncontainable Calibans.” Foreign
Accents: Brazilian Readings of Shakespeare. Ed. Aimara da Cunha Resende. Newark:
Univ. of Delaware Press, 2002. 154–173. Print.
http://scholar.oxy.edu/ctsj 25 of 26
Brenda McNary
Redmond, William. “Intertextuality in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Cesaire’s Une Tempête.”
Foreign Accents: Brazilian Readings of Shakespeare. Ed. Aimara da Cunha Resende.
Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 2002. 174–197. Print.
Rix, Lucy. “Maintaining the State of Emergence/y: Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête.” The Tempest
and Its Travels. Ed. Peter Hulme and William Sherman. Philadelphia: Univ. of
Pennsylvania Press, 2000. 236–249. Print.
Scheie, Timothy. “Addicted to Race: Performativity, Agency and Césaire’s A Tempest.” French
Cultural Studies Criticism at the Crossroads. Ed. Marie-Pierre Le Hire and Dana Strand.
Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000. 205-220. Print.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Ed. Peter Holland. Penguin, 1999. Print.
Spivak, Gayatri. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Ed. Cary
Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988. 271–313.
http://scholar.oxy.edu/ctsj 26 of 26
Brenda McNary